- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — A bunch of high school students yesterday fired machine guns at enemies in a desert, clambered aboard helicopters and crawled under barbed wire to get a taste of military life.

Some enjoyed it so much they wanted to enlist, but most will have to wait a few years.

“Ever since I was little, I just wanted to serve my country and give back to it because of all it’s given me, said Justin Haas, 16, of Wilcox, Ariz.

Justin was one of about 40 juniors and seniors visiting the Marine base by way of an outreach program by the Freedom Alliance, a Sterling, Va.-based education and charity group founded by Oliver L. North in 1990. The high schoolers spent the week in the Washington area as part of the National Rifle Association’s Youth Education Summit (YES) program.

Armed with canteens and sunglasses, the group attended a briefing by Staff Sgt. Jerome Taylor, who told them about the 60,000-acre base, one of the largest Marine bases in the country. Then they climbed aboard two helicopters at the base’s Marine Helicopter Squadron One, or HMX-1, where helicopters that transport the president are kept.

For many, the highlight of their visit was the base’s weapons-firing simulator, where they fired an M-16 rifle and a 9 mm pistol in a darkened warehouse with two large projection screens. The screens displayed images of running soldiers and other targets while computers tracked the shooters’ marksmanship.

The guns, powered by air pressure, are used to simulate shooting for Marines who are having difficulty meeting their marksmanship qualifications, said Capt. Patrick McCuen.

“This range right here is the best part,” said Christopher Wagner, 15, of Libby, Mont. “It actually wasn’t that hard. Loading it is a little bit more difficult than I thought.”

On one of the base’s two obstacle courses, the students had to swing from rope to rope to cross an area, walk across log bridges and snake themselves under coils of barbed wire — as quickly as possible.

Many students said the trip helped bring to life things they read about in newspapers or see on television.

“It’s a really, really neat place, just seeing everything our nation uses to protect us and keep us safe,” said Stephanie Canning, 15, of Boise, Idaho. “It’s also really neat to see the people who protect our country.”

The Freedom Alliance began sponsoring visits to military bases across the country three years ago to increase youth awareness, said Alliance President Tom Kilgannon.

“Military service is not for everybody, but often the schools, teachers and guidance counselors are not letting them know about these opportunities,” Mr. Kilgannon said, adding that it is too soon to tell if the war against Iraq has generated more interest in the trips.

Like Justin, some of the students hope to someday serve their country but aren’t sure for which service they are best suited. Others are just thinking about it.

“Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to fly fighter jets, F-14s and I’m still kind of deliberating,” said Kevin Cavender, 17, of Elkview, W.Va. “When we were at the air base it kind of made me think about flying helicopters.”

Some students have no plans to enlist, and that’s just fine with Mr. Kilgannon. “Lawyers, politicians, teachers, it’s important that these professions have an understanding of the military,” he said.

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